When Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen steps out of her Brooklyn home, she finds herself between two worlds. Cohen resides in Williamsburg, a vital neighborhood in the New York jazz scene. But Williamsburg is also a center of Hasidic Judaism in the United States.
"I live right on the border," says Cohen. "I make a left turn, I'm in 18th-century Lithuania; if I make a right turn everybody also wears black but they're more computer hackers and hipsters. One day I feel like making a left and one day I feel like making a right, and I don't think one is better than the other."
Born in Israel, Cohen attended a musical conservatory in Tel Aviv along with her two brothers, soprano saxophonist Yuval and trumpeter Avishai, in the late 1980's. The siblings, who sometimes play and record as the 3 Cohens, also attended a school of the arts.
At that time Israel was not exactly a hotbed of hot jazz. There were only a couple of places in Tel Aviv where you could hear the music. But the Cohens were hooked. "When you go to school with other people who do what you do, your friends become other musicians and you hang out and immerse in it 24/7," Cohen says.
Cohen's two greatest musical heroes growing up were reed players who made their marks several decades apart: Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane. "They are two people with a sound; they play one note and it grabs me," says Cohen. "And Miles [Davis] — there are so many albums, but I imagine this one sound with the Harmon mute and it's one note that goes straight to the heart."
While Cohen admires their distinctive styles, her identification only goes so far. "You can't be someone else," says Cohen. "You can imitate the notes they're playing and try to imitate the sound, or the harmonic concept, but your song is who you are. The way each person plays one note is completely different."
In 1996 Cohen moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. "It was confusing and challenging," says Cohen. "In Israel you study English, but you don't really practice it until you need it."
After college she toured with several bands, garnering strong reviews for her performances with the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra. Then it was time to step out on her own.
"It's one thing to be a musician playing in other people's bands and it's another thing to be a band leader," says Cohen. "Once you're a bandleader and you want to make albums, and you want to put them out and perform the music, you become a business person."
In 2005 she formed Anzic Records with kindred jazz spirits. "It was people who were hanging out at the time — like family," she says. "Let's join forces so we can tell everyone we have a record label."
Two years later she took the step that would put her on the musical map, simultaneously releasing two albums on Anzic: "Poetica" and "Noir." She played clarinet, an instrument that was mostly relegated to the nostalgic side of jazz, but people listened.
The jazz world's reaction was, in a word, "wow." It was hard not to be knocked out by Cohen's virtuosity, her diverse repertoire from all over the world, not to mention the sheer audacity of the one-two punch from an unknown.
"That was the start," says Cohen, "the combination of two albums — they had different sounds, they showed different parts of my personality, and they came out on my own record label. And the fact that I was playing clarinet."
Cohen wasn't unknown for long. And six years later she's at the top of critics' and readers' polls in jazz magazines. Her latest album, "Claroscuro," is a gem. And next month she will be presented with the Paul Acket Award, given each year to "an artist deserving wider recognition for extraordinary musicianship" at the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
If the idea of an Israeli musician making a splash in jazz seems unlikely, Cohen has given it some thought.
"There's no doubt that jazz comes from African-American culture," says Cohen. "But it's a music you love and you want to play it and you want to explore it and you want to learn the history."
But, despite forging her reputation on an instrument that arguably peaked in the 1940's, Cohen is not interested in re-visiting the past; she wants to take her clarinet into the future.
"If you want to preserve the tradition of jazz and play in the style of people who played in the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, great," says Cohen. "But the definition of jazz has been pushed and extended so much that people say it's not jazz anymore. But there is no new word for what it is."
Cohen's more recent albums have showcased another side of her talent, her prowess on saxophone. "The saxophone gives me another dimension, another part of my personality that maybe will not come out on the clarinet."
At this point she has played at festivals and in clubs and concert halls all over the world. But Cohen's favorite venue is just across the East River from her home. "The Village Vanguard," says Cohen. "The sound of the room is amazing, the history is there, and the pressure. You have to climb up to the level of the history in the walls. You feel all the spirits there watching you. I still can't believe I play there."
She continues to feel the excitement of discovery that all of those jazz pioneers must have felt on a good night on stage.
"I have those moments. They happen once in a while with my quartet. We're communicating in another sphere, and when the audience is with us it's an incredible feeling of being in the moment and inside the music. It's an amazing feeling. These are the moments we live for."
Anat Cohen plays Tuesday, June 25, 6:30 p.m. & 9 p.m. at Xerox Auditorium (100 S. Clinton Ave.). Tickets cost $20-$25, or you can use your Club Pass.